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COLUMN ONE : For Militant Union, It's a War : Protesters scream and bang drums. Recruiters sneak into buildings. Decried by critics, the tactics of the Justice for Janitors campaign have been wildly successful.

August 19, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

A decade after arriving, there is little improvement. Her two young children help her scrub houses on her days off; Canted sells pork-filled tamales she cooks and Avon products in snatches of free time. She recently pawned a ring for food. When her daughter, Mildred, suffered convulsions, her hands curled in paralysis, the hospital bill totaled $700. It took two years to pay it off.

As Marriott Corp.--mirroring moves by many businesses--has nearly halved its LACMA work force in the past year, Canted finds herself doing what she said is the job of two. She scrubs 46 bathrooms each day and replaces 125 rolls of toilet paper. "When I come out, my back is breaking," said Canted, who is five months pregnant and works despite a doctor's warning that it may cost her the child. Marriott officials, citing pending union litigation, declined comment.

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Labor officials debate how much of the janitors' success can transfer to other organizing efforts. Unions, some said, thrive in industries such as janitorial services, where there is job growth; manufacturing and other areas are shrinking. Although such tactics may work for health care or other service industries, "if you are in an industrial park, banging drums does you no good. You have to affect production," said Ernesto Medrano, western regional special representative for the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Despite the janitors' early success, there is always a fresh crop of immigrants willing to come to the United States and work for less. To stem the flow, the SEIU and other unions have launched efforts to organize workers abroad.

"We must be eternally vigilant," said Justice for Janitors national organizer Lerner. Snapping his fingers, he added: "At any time, a building can go non-union. Overnight."

Times staff writer Michael Flagg contributed to this report.

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